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Theatre still rocking after all these years ... but only just

Ladies and gentleman...A crowd gathers for the official opening of uMbilo’s Rhumbelow Sellhole in September 1929

Ladies and gentleman...A crowd gathers for the official opening of uMbilo’s Rhumbelow Sellhole in September 1929

Published Oct 10, 2021


THE Rhumbelow Theatre has provided meaningful support to local arts events, mainly musical productions, over the past two decades, but their “mother ship” venue in uMbilo has been rocked by financial difficulties.

To avoid their Rhumbelow Shellhole venue on Cunningham Road, uMbilo, and their overall operations from plunging into complete dire straits, the theatre's volunteers' needed to find resourceful ways to keep their acts alive and happening.

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Their latest offering is screenings of big international arts productions at their Umbilo venue, which is a Moth (Memorable Order of Tin Hats) Hall that was built in 1929 and customised over the years to suit theatre productions.

Ladies and gentleman...A crowd gathers for the official opening of uMbilo’s Rhumbelow Sellhole in September 1929

Roland Stansell, the driving force behind Rhumbelow Theatre, said they will be screening theatrical productions that have been filmed in London and other places like Royal Shakespeare, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera and some other big name shows.

Rhumbelow Theatre’s driving force, Roland Stansell, with an album of memories.

“The Cliff Richard AP concert is scheduled for November. Three days after the live event, we will be screening it in Durban along with other cinemas in the country.

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“We have become like a cinema nouveau, but we don't want to steal someone else's brand so we are calling it Rhumbelow Classic Cinema, and we do our screenings during the week.”

Stansell said the new venture became necessary because everyone in the arts and entertainment industry was struggling and “uMbilo is in a tight corner right now”.

“We are trying to bring in a new audience so that we can keep going. We have tried many things over the years.

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Some work, some don't,” Stansell said.

He said the classic Nutcracker production will be screened in December.

“It finishes on December 23, we start screening the event that has not been seen by the public, unless you are in London, from the 23rd. Presently we are showing the musical Kinky Boots.”

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Rhumbelow Theatre came alive in 2001 after Stansell and four of his friends partnered with the uMbilo Shellhole.

“We were a group called the Family Players, doing drag shows mainly at the Tafta premises on South Beach and other old age homes to raise funds.”

But with time they struggled to get people to attend their four shows annually at South Beach so they looked for a new venue and discovered the Moths hall in uMbilo with a “quaint stage and a lovely arch”.

After negotiating with the Moths, they entered into a partnership in 2001.

The Moths started as an organisation, in Durban, by World War I veterans, who looked to gather and share their wartime experiences in venues that they called “shellholes”, (cavities created by exploding bombs).

That tradition was taken further by the survivors of World War II and has grown in stature with their trademark shellholes around the world.

The Rhumbelow name was derived from a common spelling for rum (rhum) back in the day and uMbilo.

While the pioneering moths built their Umbilo hall in 1929, it was upgraded in the 1950s by the veterans of that generation.

A band plays on the Rhumbelow Shellhole’s extended stage in 1957. The event was in celebration of the revamp the venue underwent at the time.

Dances, dinners, and children’s Christmas parties and a few theatre shows were some of the events hosted there in the past.

Cathy Peacock from the group Platform Jazz trumpets a tune at the Rhumbelow Shellhole

Since Rhumbelow Theatre came alive in 2001, Stansell said, they have spent money on maintaining and improving the venue.

The projector and big screen have been their latest investment, which Stansell paid for.

Jayson Andrew, Barry Thomson and Shaun Dragt from the band The Real performing at the Rhumbelow Shellhole Picture GK Forrester

Their productions were generally music related, but sometimes magicians and comedians got on stage. Many Rhumbelow performers were amateur groups while some big name artists like Jonathan Roxmouth (Phantom of the Opera fame) and Pieter-Dirk Uys also ventured there.

About seven years ago, Stansell arranged a production at the Pietermaritzburg shellhole, celebrating its 75th anniversary.

The organisers asked him if he could stage events as was being done in uMbilo. Stansell agreed.

A friend at Tina's Hotel made a similar suggestion to Stansell a few years later and Rhumbelow found another avenue.

Two-years-ago, Rhumbelow was asked to set up shop at the Northlands Bowling Club in Durban North and Stansell obliged.

“I don’t go looking for venues. I only get involved when a healthy partnership could be established.

“We don't rent properties, we work with whoever we partner with to ensure that their respective buildings and properties are sustained by generating extra revenue for those venues.”

Stansell said their uMbilo venue was always popular.

Before 2010, patrons had to make prior bookings for events, to avoid disappointment, but numbers have dropped drastically since Covid-19 and the lockdown regulations came into effect.

Covering their monthly overheads has become a struggle.

Stansell said the other venues had their challenges but had fundraising programmes to sustain themselves. However, uMbilo beacme a challenge.

“At the end of the day, uMbilo is the mother ship, that's where it all started. The last thing we want is to see it disappear. Although we are closed at various times, the overheads (cleaning, maintenance etc) don’t stand still. They have to be met”.